Charleston motorcyclist takes riding to extremes
By Bonnie Clark, Features Writer
Life is a series of challenges, and when they don’t present themselves, Tim Yow of Charleston goes looking for them.
Yow, 66, a serious biker and businessman, completed a 17,000-mile motorcycle trip in a month this summer, with an extra week thrown in for bike maintenance. There were challenges to spare.
The journey took him from Florida to California, then up the Coastal Highway to Alaska, up to Prudhoe Bay, across Canada and into Newfoundland and Labrador, and back to Florida.
A member of the international Iron Butt Association, Yow has amassed a large number of awards for long-distance and extreme motorcycle trips.
“Within Iron Butt, there are a lot of different kinds of rides,” Yow said. “The entry level ride is called a Saddle Sore — that’s a thousand miles in 24 hours. You have to do an entry level ride before you can do the extreme rides.
“When I got into it around 2003, I was number 12,063. Now, there are more than 40,000 of us in the world.”
Yow said Iron Butt events, like the every-other-year rallies, are not races, but rather endurance events.
“It’s possible to do every Iron Butt ride legally. You don’t have to speed,” he said. “You just have to keep the wheels turning.”
While he was originally to have made his recent trip with friends, other commitments thwarted their plans, and Yow decided to go alone. He did meet and ride with friends who were traveling shorter distances a couple of times.
“I decided to do five coasts,” Yow said, “Key West, Fla., to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Goose Bay, Labrador, and back to Key West, which would touch five coasts, counting Key West as the start and finish coast.
“I wanted to do Goose Bay Road because I’d heard a lot about it, and knew it had broken a lot of bikes and hurt a lot of riders. I added it just for the challenge.”
Yow is currently considered one of the “10 most extreme riders in the world” by the IBA, ranking in the top three.
Mike Kneebone, IBA president, described Yow as an “experienced rider who knows what he’s doing.
“There’s nowhere in the U.S. that he can’t be in two days,” he said. “I think I’d call it a defective gene that makes what the rest of us would call a normal life just not enough for Tim. His mind never stops working on finding something new to do.
“Once, just for fun, he decided to set a record for how many different motorcycles he could ride a thousand miles a day,” Kneebone said.
On his five-coast trip, Yow left Key West on his Kawasaki KLR 650 at 3 a.m. on a rainy June 25. First, he headed to the police station to look for witnesses to authenticate his IBA ride certification papers.
While he was talking to officers, his “overweight, top heavy bike” fell onto a squad car. Fortunately, there was no damage and he did get the required signatures.
It was an inauspicious beginning for a trek that took Yow through treacherous, sometimes hot, sometimes mountainous, mosquito-infested, bear and bison country for five weeks, counting a total of a week of down time for maintenance.
“Animals were my biggest fear,” Yow said. “You don’t know where anything is going to go — caribou, American buffalo, bison and black bears. There are bears everywhere. I couldn’t even count the number I saw.”
Possibly the most hazardous portion of his trip was Dalton Highway, also called the Haul Road, into Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse, 500 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska.
“For 240 miles, there’s nothing but that road; there are no buildings, certainly no gas stations; no nothin’.
“A lot of it is gravel, but the last 230 miles is the rough part. I knew the road, because I rode it under the worst conditions the last time I was up there. That time, just tore my bike to pieces.
“When I got into Prudhoe, I’d had a flat tire, thrown my chain off, and my radiator was completely plugged.”
Yow said he and the friend he was riding with had to pump the tire for the last 90 miles.
“He would plug a little air compressor into a cigarette lighter and pump up my tire and I’d ride just as hard as I could until the tire went down,” Yow said.
On the last 130 miles, they were riding in calcium chloride, like that used on Illinois bridges in the winter. “They use it because it pulls the moisture out of the perma-frost and that’s what the whole road is built on,” he said. “It’s just rock on perma-frost.
“The calcium chloride was all over us. It was slimy and miserable; my radiator was plugged, and my bike was overheating.”
Dalton Highway runs through Atigun Pass, part of the Brooks mountain range, on its way to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.
“Atigun Pass is 12 percent grade,” Yow said. “If you’ve ever been to Chattanooga, that’s 6 percent.
“We were riding on gravel and mud, straight down and straight up. And, I had to ride with no brakes,” he said. “I still get goose bumps when I think about it.
“I was in first gear and the only thing that kept me from going 200 miles an hour was my engine.”
Yow had told his friend that when he got to the top, he wasn’t even going to stop to think, or he wouldn’t do it.
“Once I’d been through that, this time was a snap.
“But, it was raining before I got to Atigun Pass and rather than too much rock like last time, it was very muddy and slick.”
Yow said he has met “some of the most interesting people” on his trips into Alaska. “Those are frontiersmen in Prudhoe Bay. The motel I stayed in had just shot a grizzly bear in the hallway a short time before.
“Alaska is full of totally unique individuals. I’ve made some good friends there.”
Since he often rides in desolate areas, Yow said he has to be “electronically” on his toes.
“I ride with a ‘SPOT’ satellite transponder and two GPSs, and I always carry a spare.”
In addition to a “help” button, SPOT has a button that transmits “I’m OK, but my bike’s not.” It also has an option that automatically sends a signal every 10 minutes to let family and friends know where he is at all times.
“If it ever quits moving,” he said, “they know it.”
Yow said the thing that always gives him a lump in the pit of his stomach is seeing a grader and a truck hauling calcium chloride.
“They’re doing about 5 miles an hour spreading this stuff and the grader comes along and creates a berm down the middle of the road.
“When you come up behind a grader, you can see trucks coming from the other way, and they’re not slowing down for anything,” he said. “You have to watch for your chance, jump the berm, get around the grader and the truck, jump the berm again and get back to the right hand side, and the road is only 22 feet wide.
“The berm is so tall you can barely touch your toes to the ground.”
Yow said the worst road he traveled was the notorious Goose Bay Road — 700 miles from Quebec through Newfoundland and up into Labrador.
Changing road surfaces are a big problem, he said.
“Everyone I’ve known who has been hurt has gotten hurt because of a rapid surface change. There are five or six different surfaces and you have to be able to look ahead and assess whether it’s packed mud or gravel, loose gravel, sand, or slate-type gravel and ride accordingly.
“There’s no dust abatement,” he said, “so, while you can see a truck coming four or five miles away, once it passes you, you can’t see anything.”
On parts of the road, the dust is so bad visibility is zero after a truck has passed.
“You can’t see anything, and you can’t see surface changes. All you can do is get off your bike or get up on your pegs and ride like you’re riding motorcross — just going along with the bike and letting it jiggle under you.
“You’re tempted to slow down because your bike is acting so squirrely. But, if you slow down the guy coming behind you can’t see you, and he’s got a truck with 30 wheels, loaded to the hilt.”
Yow said he isn’t planning to do many more extreme rides, and at 66, it would be unusual if once in a while he didn’t think about how much longer he’ll be riding.
“I’ve got friends in their 80s who are still riding and I have friends who had to quit in their 50s. It’s an individual thing,” he said. “I’ll probably know when it’s time to quit.
“If I have to, I’ll ride a three-wheeler, maybe one of the new Spiders.
“I’ll have to do that just to feel the wind in my face. But, if that time comes, I’ll have some great memories.”